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Books read, late April

W.H. Auden, Complete Poems. Reread. If there is anything better to read as a writer preparing oneself for a trip to the north than “Letter to Lord Byron,” I can’t think what it would be. I love that thing so much. It’s such a strange thing to want to do, a chatty personal/general letter to Lord Byron about WH Auden’s vacation in Iceland and what the world was like at the moment, all the stuff that had been happening since Byron died with a few aside that Byron should tell Jane Austen when he got the chance. I love Auden as one loves a nerdy grumpy uncle. He has this whole cluster of things, liking Norse myths and tinkering but taking machines as interesting, fun, rather than transcendent. There are individual bits that I love, but also I actually love the whole 900-page experience, the bits like his horrible moon landing poem that make me mutter, “Oh, shut UP, Uncle Wys,” as well as his memorial poem for Louis MacNeice that made me cry for being so clearly a one-of-us in mourning. I last read this eight years ago. I will go back and read it again in another some years. He’s flawed and giggly and grumpy and wants to do the oddest things, and I love him.

Minister Faust, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain. Reread. There have been a lot more superhero books since I read this one, and I wanted to see how it felt in that different context. The other thing that I was not fully aware had happened in that time, though, was that the word “intersectionality” had lodged itself firmly in my brain. So: this is an exercise in supremely unreliable narrator, and it is a(n authorially deliberate) tragedy of non-intersectionality cast as a comedic comic book narrative. What a singular thing to do. I still think it’s probably my least favorite Minister Faust book, but they’re generally worth reading, so it’s not like that’s a hearty condemnation.

Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring. Reread. I wanted to go back and see how this held up, since I haven’t read it since it was published. The answer is: beautifully. This is not the book Hopkinson would write today, but we get to have the books she writes today, too, so all’s well. I remember that the things she was doing with a setting that was both post-apocalyptic and fantastical felt fresh to me at the time, but they’re still detailed and specific enough that other people doing those categories has not made Hopkinson’s Toronto dated or less readable, and the characters are vividly themselves and relate interestingly to each other. Still very much recommended.

Jessica M. Lepler, The Many Panics of 1837: People, Politics, and the Creation of a Transatlantic Financial Crisis. You know how badly we understand banking now? Wow, did we understand it even worse in the early 19th century. Reserve rate, what’s that? Oh dear. One of the most interesting points I took away from this book is that some patterns of didactic mass market fiction endure forever. Holding individual families responsible for a financial crisis that they could not have altered one whit by eating gruel instead of mutton, and writing fiction that showed how if only everyone was virtuous, we’d all get through this…that pattern repeats and repeats and repeats. (It’s not that there aren’t blue-collar jobs at union wages like there used to be, it’s that you’re too picky and he’s afraid of commitment! Quick, stamp out another romcom and clap, children, and Tinkerbell won’t die!)

Seanan McGuire, Every Heart a Doorway. I am a sucker for portal fantasies, and this is getting described as one. It is not. It’s a meta-portal fantasy, or possibly an urban fantasy wherein the fantasy conceit is that portal fantasies are real. If you’re looking for the essential emotional dislocation of the portal fantasy, this does not have it. Which does not make it a bad book–far from it. The teenagers in this book have all been through different portals, which are categorized, typed along various axes, and they are dealing with readjustment to this world. Or…not. And I found it fascinating and satisfying, except that the last page felt a bit abrupt. But it’s a novella, there’s only room for so much, and dozens of portals will have to be their own satisfaction. If you thought that the only justification for The Magician’s Nephew was the Wood Between the Worlds but were frustrated that they didn’t do more in it: here, here you go, without midcentury misogyny and with a whole lot of its own plot and characterization.

Alan Weisman, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World. This is the sort of book that fascinates me and yet I always want to know the perspectives not covered by the author. Gaviotas is a planned community in Colombia, and from all accounts I could casually find upon reading this book it’s doing some really good things with sustainability for trees, the things that live in and around them, and also humans. It sounds like a very good idea. There is a part of me that wants to get, for example, a candid perspective from a woman living in Gaviotas, because that sort of thing is often where the cracks in a utopianist experiment show up. But: harvesting resin, cool, okay. Interesting stuff, another for my planned community shelf, and mulling.

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